Exam Mode on the Prizm CG50 Graphing Calculator

As my last post stated, it’s that time of year for standardized testing. As part of this, certain states require that students use calculators that have been set to exam mode. This means that certain features of the calculator have been ‘turned off’ or are inaccessible to students while the exam is going on.  I remember spending hours setting all my calculators to exam mode for students and then having to spend hours undoing that once exams were over – quite a pain.

The beautiful thing about the CG50 Prizm graphing calculator is that you never have to undo the exam mode – it will automatically turn off exam mode after 12 hours. Which means, you can set it, students can take their test, and then next day, the calculator is ready to go again with full functionality restored.  Another nice feature is that when the calculator is in exam mode, you can actually see it on the screen – there is a green highlighted border when in exam mode. This makes it easy to walk around and visually check that the calculators are indeed still in exam mode (or were set to exam mode to begin with, if you have your students do the process for you).

I made a quick video on how to put a CG50 Prizm into exam mode. I apologize for the lighting – very hard to film the actual calculator (vs. emulator) while holding my computer video camera…and those shadows?!!  But – hopefully you can get the gist of things!!


Math Test Prep – It’s That Time of Year Where We Bore Our Students Into Failure

I know when I was teaching in the k-12 classroom, this time of year was always so frustrating as a teacher and even more frustrating and anxiety-ridden for my students. This is the time of year when standardized testing is occurring or about to occur, in the majority of states. This can mean state-tests or national tests such as the AP exams, SAT and ACT. For me, the biggest ‘anxiety inducer’ was the mandatory End-of-Course tests that all my math students were required to take and pass with a 70% or better in order to earn the credits needed to graduate. No pressure there…..

Things have changed a bit as we move into the new era of ESSA, with many states changing the standardized testing requirements, but there is definitely a lot of pressure on students to perform, and on teachers to get their students to achieve at specific levels. This impacts teacher evaluations, school evaluations, etc. I’ve always hated that these ‘one-point-in-time’ tests have such dire impacts on teachers and schools, considering they do not reflect student growth over time or other impacting factors such as absenteeism.

But – regardless, tests are out there, happening now, and causing teachers and students undo stress. I know, for me, part of the frustration was the inordinate amount of time we were ‘required’ to prep students for the test. This included days specifically set aside to practice for the tests instead of teaching, and a ridiculous number of ‘practice tests’ and test taking prep.  Boring, stress-inducing, and really kind of pointless in my opinion. I felt we spent entirely too much time preparing for tests instead of actually teaching our content and letting students continue to learn. It was as if ‘learning’ stopped and the whole school went into ‘test-prep’ mode, and we forgot what school should be about – engaging students in learning and understanding, not preparing them to take a standardized test. My thoughts were these prep times only increased students anxiety about the tests and often, the long, drawn-out, constant test prep led to student burn-out, apathy, and failure. For many students, they got so tired and bored of ‘practicing’ that when the real test(s) came along, they made beautiful designs on their bubble sheets instead of actually focusing on answering the questions. (Yep – that really happens).

What are my suggestions? Keep teaching. And not teaching to the test or for the test, but teaching. Teach new things. Teach applications of things that might be on the test but  NOT through standardized-test questions, but with real questions, real problems, and real applications of the things students should know for the test. Worksheets with multiple choice answers are NOT teaching, or learning, or engaging. Technology with “practice” problems and right/wrong answers is NOT teaching or learning. Do something with the knowledge students should be able to use and do on these tests. Create interesting learning experiences, where students have to problem-solve and apply the knowledge and talk to each other. Example: instead of 20 solve these ‘systems of equations’ problems on a worksheet, provide real-world problems where a systems of equations is needed to find the solution. Where students have to work together to create the equations and come up with the solutions. Where they get to decide the most appropriate method to solve the system. Way more interesting and much more insightful into what students know and can do.

It’s not that you shouldn’t prepare students for tests. It’s that you should do it in a way where students are applying their knowledge and engaged in applications of that knowledge. It’s not about worksheets and test-taking strategies. It’s about understanding and applying the concepts. Tests suck. Don’t feed the anxiety and the boredom and the apathy towards tests by creating rote, mundane, drill-and-kill test prep. Make it about engaging students in applying their knowledge in interesting, relevant ways. There are many resources out there that can provide excellent ‘test prep’ ideas and problems in a much more exciting way than a worksheet with 40 multiple choice problems. (Bleh).

Some fun #math sites with challenging application problems to use for ‘test-prep’:


Mastery NOT Test Scores

I like to browse the TED Talks site because there are so many interesting topics and speakers. Sometimes inspiring, sometimes funny, sometimes educational – always with something to learn or provide a new perspective. I tend to look for things on technology, math, education – topics that are of interest to me because of what I do in my daily life. I found this recently uploaded talk from Sal Kahn, the founder of Khan Academy. He’s done a couple Ted Talks I think, but I hadn’t seen this one before, and found the topic to be one that I have pondered myself. Shouldn’t our education system be built on helping students master concepts rather than focused on learning specific content in a specific order to pass tests? Our current system is designed to push a group of students  through a set curriculum at the same pace, where those who don’t quite make it accumulate gaps in learning, and therefore start the next set of curriculum behind.  And the gaps keep building, creating a group of students who are left behind, or don’t think they are capable of learning some things (like math, or science), when in fact, had they been allowed the time to master, they could have learned and gone beyond.

It’s an interesting idea – one that would be very difficult to incorporate into our current education system – a system that is very resistant to change. I do know there are schools and classrooms, often charter schools, that are focused on this idea of mastery over testing. I think the Common Core at its core is based on the idea of mastery – building and mastering basic content knowledge prior to moving on to the next steps/content. However, when placed in an educational system that compartmentalizes students by grade and by subject and assesses by testing, the focus will always end up being on passing the ‘test’, so we will always leave some students with gaps.

I am not sure what the answer is – personalized learning is a big ‘buzz’ word these days. With technology and the ability to differentiate classrooms for students, maybe ‘mastery’ is becoming a focus. So perhaps there are changes afoot. Maybe ESSA will de-emphasize the standardized testing frenzy our education system is currently suffering from and we can focus on helping students become masters of their own education. We want students to learn from their mistakes rather than hit a wall and stop learning or trying new challenges because they “can’t”. Let’s hope that change is afoot in education – as Sal Kahn says, it’s an imperative – I really think that this is all based on the idea that if we let people tap into their potential by mastering concepts, by being able to exercise agency over their learning, that they can get there.”

Watch the Ted Talk – it’ll make you think, and as an educator, maybe think about making a change.

Spring Is In The Air – The Sweet Smell of Testing….

Don’t you just love spring? The flowers blooming, trees bursting with new leaves, bees buzzing around, IMG_2650and the weather turning warmer.  Walking around town this morning looking at all the beautiful trees and flowers certainly reminded me how much I love the spring.  Then, as I walked past the local high school, I was reminded of what spring means to most students, (students who were probably staring out at the beautiful weather right that moment.).  Testing.  Spring doesn’t smell so sweet to them, I imagine.

I remember when I was teaching back in Virginia, where we test-prep-posterhad the Standards of Learning End-of-Course tests every April/May (the S.O.L.’s….appropriate acronym!)  (They still have these of course).  What I remember is how the whole month of April leading up to the tests was focused on test prep — review, review, practice test, practice test, pep rally to pump kids up, more review, etc.  By the time the actual tests rolled around, students were so tired of “practicing” that they probably didn’t even care about the tests. Then, those that had to take the AP tests as well still had those to look forward to.  As a teacher, I HATED this time of the year as much as the kids because it felt like learning was forced to stop so kids could “get ready for the test’.  I would much rather have kept on with teaching new and exciting things – applying the math by making bridges out of toothpicks or tetrahedron kites, using technology, etc.  I knew my students were ready because they’d been learning and applying all along – they didn’t need all this down-time for test prep. But ‘preparing for the test’ was a district/school/department mandate. I had no choice. The computer labs were taken over for testing, so no more Sketchpad. The days on the calendar had required test prep mandates and there were weekly department meetings to look at the practice test data and pick the review  materials for continued preparation.  The whole school was focused on getting kids excited about taking a test.  Students hated it.  Teachers hated it.  And we all forgot that it was spring. We were all too stressed about passing the test so that the school met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress from No Child Left Behind) and we stressed about getting at least 70% of our students to pass the test and students to get at least 70% ON the tests, so we would get good evaluations (teachers) or graduate (students).  Spring was a time of anxiety, not beauty.

Hopefully, if not this year, by next year, all this will change. With the passage of the Every Student imagesSucceeds Act (ESSA) there may be a spring again. Yes, there will still be testing.  Assessment is important obviously, to determine where changes need to be made in instruction, to ensure students are learning and meeting standards, to ensure that teachers and schools are educating students.  But testing is going to change and it won’t be this punitive system (I hope) that NCLB created.  And hopefully, it won’t be a constant thing where months of a school year are taken up with test prep and test taking. That’s a good thing. School should be about learning, not just testing, which is what it often feels like, especially this time of year.

ESSA obviously is new and it will take time for changes to be implemented.  Though even as early as this year, there are states who have changed their testing or eliminated testing this year.  The ESSA (from 5 ways ESSA Impacts Standardized Testing, by Anne O’Brien):

  • Allows districts to use a locally determined, nationally recognized test like the ACT or SAT instead of the state test in high schools, which could have huge implications for classroom practice
  • Allows states to institute a cap limiting the amount of time that students spend taking tests, which could reduce that time (and the time educators spend administering them)
  • Funds states in auditing and streamlining assessment systems, eliminating unnecessary and duplicative assessments
  • Establishes a pilot program in up to seven states (or consortia of states) that allows for the complete revamping of their assessment system, meaning that it’s possible that summative state tests as we know them will be eliminated, replaced by competency-based assessments, performance-based assessments, interim assessments, or something else entirely
  • Allows for the use of computer-adaptive testing in state and local assessments (NCLB did not), a process that could allow for much more accurate data on student performance

IMG_2649I think one of my most favorite things about ESSA is that it requires states to use more than academic factors (i.e. standardized test scores) as indicators of accountability and school/student success. A test score is no longer the be-all and end-all, allowing education to focus on learning, not test prep and testing.

Maybe now both teachers and students can start enjoying spring again.

Goodbye NCLB, Hello ESSA.

As of December 10, 2015, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is no more and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 is now in effect. There is, of course, a lot of work and details and implementation issues that will have to be worked out in the coming years, but I for one, am breathing a a little sigh of relief. The dreaded AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and HQT (Highly Qualified Teacher) mandates are no longer going to restrain what schools and teachers should be doing to support student learning.

I can only speak from my own experience, but as a teacher who taught before and after the NCLB Act was made into law, I know how much damage I saw in the schools I taught at, as a result of NCLB. In fact, the research paper I wrote on for my doctorate program application was all about how NCLB had ruined teaching.  (I tried to find it so I could quote some things, but I believe it may have been “recycled” in my most recent move.) What I do know, again, from my own experience, was that teaching changed. I taught in Virginia, and teachers and schools became so focused on state tests and reaching the magic NCLB % passing rate for their students, and making AYP, that teaching became all about the tests. All our classroom tests became multiple choice so that students were use to that when it came to the state test. Teaching had to focus on only the topics covered on the test, so “extra” stuff was frowned about. Memorization of facts and skills was focused on – no more focus on understanding or problem solving – just on the skills needed to pass the test. No more hands-on learning – we needed to teach test taking strategies.

As a teacher who strives to make mathematics engaging, hands-on, and technology rich, you can imagine my struggle. NCLB is in fact a major reason I left teaching in the classroom to go to Key Curriculum, an inquiry-based mathematics/technology publishing company. I wasn’t able to teach mathematics the way I believed it should be taught due to the standardized testing constraints and constant pressure to meet the magical AYP numbers and student passing percentages. I believed I could have more of an impact on mathematics education through supporting inquiry-based learning and technology integration via teacher professional development.

When the Common Core State Standards came along, I jumped for joy, because I saw this as a step back to true teaching. Relevant, real-world, engaging learning focused on understanding and applying mathematics. But – NCLB and the standardized culture we are immersed in has made the CCSS a difficult implementation, and unfortunately, a political tool.  The passing of the ESSA is  exciting because hopefully it will allow education to focus on learning, understanding, and applying rather than testing.

I’ve been researching different articles about what the ESSA will in fact change, fund, and mandate, as that will be a crucial factor in how states implement the new law and how schools/teachers/students are assessed. Assessment is still an important component of education – without it, how can we ensure students are learning and improve the ways in which we help them learn. The difference between ESSA and NCLB is, I hope, that assessment will be more formative versus punitive. The states have a lot more power and control – which could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. It’s obviously too early to tell.

I would suggest you read more about the ESSA on your own. A good summary can be found here. This article does a good comparison of the two acts. NCTM wrote a nice article explaining their support and what some of the ESSA initiatives are, so read that here.  There is also a government site that details the ESSA, which you can find here. I would especially look at the fact sheets posted here. (I will admit, some of the provisions are a little concerning to me.)  Here are a couple that stick out for me as either interesting or concerning:

  1. The one-size-fits all measure for accountability (AYP) is repealed, and states, not the Federal Government, will have power over measuring student and school performance.
  2. There are 69 programs that will be eliminated, and instead, a Local Academic Flexible Grant will allow states & school districts to allocate resources in a way that addresses their needs.
  3. States will determine and create their own strategies to improve failing schools.
  4. All states are free to opt out of the requirements under any program in the bill.

Obviously, this is a very short list – the provisions are numerous and complicated. Much better for you to read and compare on your own. As I said, I am a little concerned at some of the things I am reading (i.e. states opting out of everything, lack of funding, elimination of some great programs, etc.). But, only time will tell and hopefully, after the struggle we have had under NCLB, there can be a more positive approach to teaching and assessing students.